Nesmania

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For almost two years I’ve been watch this guy on twitch.tv who calls himself “The Mexican Runner” try to beat every Nintendo game ever released. These are games for the original Nintendo Entertainment System with releases spanning from 1985 to 1994. In all, there are 710 games TMR is trying to beat. So far he has completed 395. He’s past half-way.

MR calls the project “Nesmania.” When he first started, it was a unique idea. No one had ever tried to master every game for a particular console, let alone one with as punishing a game library as the NES. I started following it back in August 2014 when he was at 60 or 70 games. In that time TMR has logged over 2000 hours of game play. That’s the equivalent of about one year of full-time work.

One of the things I really admire about Nesmania, besides just the insanely ambitious premise of the thing, is all of the meticulous documentation TMR and his followers create around the project. Every minute of every game is live streamed over Twitch, usually to online audiences of between 600 to 800 viewers. The gameplay video is then archived, both in the highlight section of TMR’s Twitch channel and on his Youtube channel. TMR even rates and reviews each game after he’s competed it.

I have to admit, I have a soft spot for the NES. It was the only video game console I spent considerable time playing when I was a kid. And what I’ve discovered watching Nesmania is that I never even scratched the surface of what the NES was about. I think I’ve played maybe 10% of the entire game library. I try to watch a little bit of every video, just to get an idea of what each game is like. Truth be told, though, I’m really not capable of sitting down and watching an entire playthrough. For one thing, I’m an adult man with a job, and I don’t have time. But also, most of the games are just really boring. Dull to watch but I’m sure also dull to play. Just this last month, TMR had to beat all three of the Bases Loaded games within a couple weeks of each other. For every title he had to win 80 nine inning baseball games. They each took him between 30 to 40 hours each to beat. It was painful to watch. He’d basically score a run in the first inning and then bunt out on every subsequent at-bat just to move the games along faster. But those are easy games. To watch him systematically destroy some of the hardest video games every made has at times been truly thing of beauty. He beat all of the Dragon Warrior games blind, without any maps, hints, or cheats. For Q-bert he basically had to memorized the game’s entire button sequence to get through. And his epic 37 hour slog through Ikari Warriors is one of the only documented instances of someone beating that game without resorting to the ABBA code.

Now, of course it goes without saying that Nesmania is an absurd and quixotic venture that helps no one, serves no real purpose, and is probably a complete waste of time. Yes, it is clearly nothing more than a bizarre fantasy quest of an eccentric shut-in. But there’s an undeniably poetry to what The Mexican Runner is trying to do. No one has ever passed all the NES games before, so in that sense TMR something like a gaming explorer, planting his flag atop a heretofore unassailable peak. Also, I think will ultimately be looked at as an activity in deep archiving. There is a lot of cultural content in the NES library that’s locked away in an obsolete digital format, which even when emulated can only be accessed by playing out the program. Nesmania unfolds each game and creates a record of its contents. It’s surprising that game developers aren’t already doing this to capture and preserve their work. Perhaps years from now, the Nesmania videos will be used for historical research. Even for people like me who still remember playing these games as kids, Nesmania is still a fantastic feast for nostalgia.

Battle of B-R5RB

I’ve been fascinated over the last day or two with stories of the incredible MMORPG battle that occurred on EVE online. I won’t get into the meta-game politics that allowed such an event to happen; I’m not really the best one to do that. I don’t play the game (or any video games, for that matter), and kind of forgot the game existed since I first heard about it in college. But the numbers are staggering and a thing to marvel at: The fight took place over a total of 21 hours and involved 7,548 players. The Eve Online servers were barely able to support all of the activity, but miraculously they held on, hosting the wanton destruction an estimated $300,000 worth of in-game capital. Reports suggest that 75 Titan-class battle stations were lost, a unit which takes almost 8 weeks to build and which costs a ridiculous amount of resources. Before the B-R5RB bloodbath, the record for most Titans lost in a single battle was 12. In all, something like 600 capital-class ships were destroyed.

Coordinated battles like this are what cooperative gaming is all about, but B-R5RB is something different. Never have so many players acted in such a systemized fashion for so long a period. It is being hailed as the biggest battle ever in gaming. Having observed a few total war-style MMORPGs like PlantetSide and Urban Dead, I am astonished at depth of organization and administrative attention that goes into building the game’s enormous player federations, and the sheer obedience demonstrated by the rank and file of these armies is nothing short of miraculous. Trying to organize any kind of coordinated strike in an MMORPG universe is like trying to herd cats. People live in different time zones and have different real world obligations which keep them from putting in the hours needed to be able to pull off anything interesting or meaningful. Most of the time, you log into a game like Eve Online, and you are plunged into an emergent chaos of tens of thousands of independent actors all playing their own games, with different goals and purposes. To see any kind of collective will expressed on the order of what was seen January 27, 2014 in the B-R5RB system of New Eden is a thing to behold and wonder at. Let it be noted that for many individuals involved in the battle, their losses were real and substantive. The destruction of each ship represented hour and hours of effort and preparation and resource management. Many are still stocked over what happened. Some have quit the game, unable to muster the motivation to rebuild and start all over again. One has to ask what could have inspired so many to throw away what was so precious to them in such a reckless manner. Reading through the forums and the statements given by some of the alliance leaders, it seems that in many cases the reason was glory and excitement about being part of something truly unique and rare. As the capital ships began to enter the fray, it became clear to everyone involved that they were participating in something that they would probably never see again in their gaming lives. They knew that they were taking part in something that would be remembered in gaming lore. They were, all of them together, making one heck of a story.

Two weeks after the battle, CCP Games, the developer behind Eve Online, created a beautiful and eerie starship graveyard on the spot where the battle occurred as a commemoration of the event and a tribute to the gamers who participated and allowed it to happen. Other MMORPG devs should take note. Usually these virtual worlds within which a online games take place remain static. They are usually treated as decorative arenas where the players’ behaviors and actions can be freely expressed but never preserved. I am pleased to see developers put time into to building vestigial signifiers into the environment to document major events in the community’s shared memory. I’m not going to say things like this make virtual spaces come alive, but it does make them mean something. It gives them identities and emotional correlatvies.

Spelunky Heroes

The video above captures one of the greatest video gaming feats that I have ever witnessed. Last week, twitch streamer Bananasaurus Rex successfully completed the world’s first solo eggplant run in Spelunky. Since very soon after the game’s initial launch back in 2008, people have known that if you sacrifice a mystery box on a Kali shrine, it produces a hold-able eggplant item that you can carry from level to level. The eggplant itself is very fragile. It cannot be thrown or whipped without perishing. If any little bit of rubble or falling debris can destroy it. And as far as anyone could tell, it served no purpose. The eggplant went largely ignored by gamers until the PC release came out and Spelunkers could begin combing through the game’s source files to learn all of Derek Yu’s secrets. It was discovered that the eggplant could be used to incapacitate Yama, the game’s end boss. Certainly a helpful little easter egg, except that getting the eggplant that far proved immensely difficult. In the 5 years since the game was released, no one has managed to do it. Until now. Back in October two brothers pulled it off in co-op mode. It was a great accomplishment, the first documented evidence of anyone ever doing it, but co-oping the run is far easier than going solo because you can share the responsibility of carrying the eggplant to keep it safe. A week ago, Bananasaurus Rex became the first to go it alone. His was a harrowing journey. There were dozens of instances where it almost ended. But it didn’t Below are some of his amazing run’s more notable points, with time cues indicating where they fall in the youtube video.

5:50 – Rex gives Kali a wrapped gift and is rewarded with an eggplant. As mentioned, the eggplant has no use other than immobilizing the game’s end boss. The eggplant run is on.

15:20 – He gets a dark level. This is especially difficult with the eggplant because he has to carry the torch also to find his way. Eventually, he manages to clear the level to the point where it’s safe enough to ghost all the gems he finds. In the process of doing so, he find the passage to the black market.

35:55 – He angers Kali just for fun and carries the ball and chain through the next two levels.

39:50 – Rex anticipates the eggplant’s vulnerability only a few seconds before it actually falls into harms way. He narrowly avoids losing it to an alien’s ray gun.

40:26 – He discovers from someone watching his stream that he missed a free jetpack on the previous level. The best item in the game, it would have made everything considerably easier. Oh well…

42:30 – The spaceship level is bananas. Because there are aliens constantly destroying pieces of the environment and rubble is flying everywhere. If any little bit falls on the eggplant, the run is over. But Rex has to go the spaceship to free the robot helper. He’ll need it in the Temple to carry the Anubis scepter between levels while he carries the eggplant. He must have the scepter to unlock the City of Gold level. And he must go to the City of Gold to obtain the Book of the Dead, which ultimately allows him to enter Hell. Having to free and then lead the AI-controlled robot helper is one of the most difficult parts of an eggplant run.

55:37 – Once he gets to the City of Gold shit starts getting real. The run is going well. He’s managed to get the wonky robot to carry the scepter without ruining everything. His money is good but he’s resource starved, only 5 bombs and 5 ropes. He knows Olmec will be a problem unless he finds more bombs. He skypes his friend for moral support. His live stream viewership is starting to climb over 500.

58:48 – The battle with Olmec is epic. He finds just enough bombs to dig a hole that is exactly Olmec-sized. There are still blocks at the bottom though, and he would have to spend his last two bombs to remove them, thus forcing him to enter Hell with utterly bombless. To remove the blocks, Rex decides to get Olmec to pound into the hole, which means he has to line the boss up perfectly. He does this by teetering at the lip and then backing away at the last moment. It is a thing of beauty. (1:07:16)

1:16:00 – Hell is non-stop crazy, and with a bomb deficiency Rex has to fight hard to stay alive. His maneuver to get into the exit on 5-3 is marvelous. And he manages to keep his one bomb, which he can use on one of the minotaurs on the Yama level to replenish his supply.

1:19:30 – Rex feeds Yama the eggplant. He’s done it.

Rex’s response to what he’s just done is interesting to me. His friend Doxy is clearly elated, but Rex is mostly just relieved. He did what he set out to do. He had probably been working at this run for months, and now it’s all over. He’s played thousands of hours of Spelunky, literally thousands, and now he’s accomplished the pinnacle achievement of the game. During the credits Doxy asks him what he’s going to do now. Bananasaurus Rex is one of the best Spelunky players in the world. He holds the speed run world record, having completed the game in 2 minutes, 13 seconds. He says he’s going to try for the high score world record. He also floats the idea of killing Yama in new and unorthodox ways. This past week he killed Yama with tiki traps. Pretty neat.

EggplantYama

Mass Excavation of Curiosity Cube

Curiosity is, or was, a massively multiplayer online game/social experiment published by a UK indie studio called 22Cans. Its premise is stupid simple: players are presented with an enormous cube which itself is made up of about 69 billion little cubes. Using the touch screen interface of a mobile device or tablet, players tap at the individual cublets to break them. With each broken cube, the player is given coins which he or she can redeem for various tools and devices that can aid in the excavation process. The game was released November 6, 2012, and over the winter it became immensely popular. Over 4 million individual free-to-play accounts were registered over the course of the game’s entire rub. It is difficult to know what it was about the Curiosity that motivated so many people to dump so many hours into such a simple and seemingly inconsequential activity. As you can see from the video above, which offers a time lapse of the cube’s excavation, individuals and groups would carve designs and messages into the cube’s surface (players could only dig at one layer of the cube at a time). Participants doubtless found some satisfaction in being able to make markings which everyone in the community could see and admire, but even this seems like a flimsy motivation. It appears that most of the people who played the game regularly were invested in the idea of getting to the cube’s center, and they were pleased to work with others to accomplish that goal. And so Curiosity became this amazing collaborative effort to tackle the cube and obliterate it. Played at the micro-level, the game is dull and repetitive, but the macro effort was captivating. The act of making even a minor contribution to what turned out to be an enormous, worldwide enterprise was gratifying in and of itself, even in the absence of any substantial individualized reward.

But there was another compelling factor behind Curiosity’s success: curiosity. Everyone wanted to know what as at the center of the cube. Whenever Peter Molyneux, the head of 22Cans, spoke publicly about the game, he would offer tantalizing hints about what the game was about and what might be inside the cube. Most memorably, he was quoted in Wired saying, “what is inside the cube is life-changingly amazing by any definition.” Many viewed this as hyperbole, but it actually turned out to be quite true for one person at lease: the person who cracked open the last cublet in the cube. On May 26th, 2013, 22Cans announced that the final layer had been removed and that the cube had been opened. A young man from Edinburgh, Scotland named Bryan Henderson had broken the block, and upon completing the game, he was shown the video which I’ve embedded above. In the recording, Peter Molyneux walks into the frame and informs the player that he has been chosen to play a central role in 22Cans’ next MMOG. In this new game, which many believe will attract an even larger community than any of 22Cans’ games, the winner of Curiosity placed in the position of a god and will reign over all the other players. He will create the rules and conditions under which the rest of the community will struggle and play against. The new game is called Godus and will function something like a religion simulator. As an incentive to be a benevolent ruler and to help make the game a success, Bryan Henderson will be given a portion of the game’s revenues. So far 22Cans has raised $732,510 via Kickstarter to cover Godus’s development . No date has been announced for its release. No one can guess what sort of a game will emerge under Henderson’s direction, but it will very likely be the case that participants in the game will treat him as something akin to a god, perhaps bribing him or ingratiating themselves in other ways to win his favor and gain an upper hand in the game. Those of us who follow 22Cans are very eager to see what will happen.

What it would look like if you combined all the iPhone screens ever sold into one screen. [stupidcalculations.com]

Gamecuffs

An excerpt from a failed story I wrote a few years ago. The story’s called “Gamecuffs.” This is part of the opening monologue:

The previous summer I was very interested in obstacle courses and was watching a lot of Japanese game shows. I may be wrong since I speak no Japanese, but it seems most Japanese game shows forego the classic game show convention of introducing their guests to the studio and television audience. I can think of only one American game show that shares this practice, and it is probably not coincidental that The Price is Right should share other similarities to the Japanese game show method, such as play with large and conspicuous toy-objects, adrenaline-tainted calculation, effusive celebration, naked disappointment, et cetera. It is imperative that a show like The Price provide a degree of anonymity before a national audience; the guest would not be free to act childlike and entertaining otherwise. For a game devoted purely to play, it makes no sense to stop in the middle and talk about what somebody does for work. And besides, for the sake of the game, what purpose does a guest need to fulfill beside being anything other than a contestant? I remember watching Jeopardy! during the late stages of Ken Jennings’ 74 game winning streak. Despite having a life well-built for small talk (life abroad, new baby, self-professed passion for comics and movies), at around his thirtieth appearance he had run out of things to say about himself during the introduction break. He and Trebeck spent that time on the remaining shows just talking about the game.

I have a respect and fascination with those who play games for a living. A man I know from work is sometimes able to support himself playing cards online. He isn’t always able to win, so he keeps his job working afternoons and evenings as a Pharmacy Technician. I only know him because there was a period when I tried smoking clove cigarettes and we would sometimes take smoking breaks together in back. He told me that when he gets off work around eleven, he goes home, checks his accounts and goes to work playing Texas hold’em against people in India and the Pacific Rim. For seven continuous hours, he told me, he sits up in bed with his wife sleeping beside him and plays poker. Then, at around 6:30 in the morning, regardless of whether he is winning or losing, he logs off and goes to wake his kids up for school. He said he sleeps a little between the time his wife leaves for work and 3 o’clock, when he comes in; although, sometimes he’ll log back on during midday and work the Americans playing on their lunch breaks. I told him I’d been keeping more or less the same schedule since getting my PS3, but he said it wasn’t the same thing because he wasn’t playing for fun. He was playing for money. Once you’ve played the games long enough, you begin to see the interplay of odds and the mechanics of betting. He said that once you’ve reached that point, you stop playing and just respond robotically to the other players. He insisted that it was a job, as much as his Pharm. Tech job was a job. I don’t think this is completely true, since I’ve seen him sleeping in the meds lab after the Pharmacist has left, so clearly the two at least produce different physiological responses. I had to ask him, then, if he doesn’t enjoy playing the game and he isn’t making that much money doing it, why does he play it obsessively like he does? He said he likes the winning.

Like movies, most games are designed to cause a degree of stress . This is intended to be part of the game’s challenge. I remember as a child, before I had become adept—as all gamers do—at deciphering the programmed pattern of a game, I owned several titles for Nintendo which I could not play because I was afraid of them. Worst in my collection was Castlevania 2: Simon’s Quest. Besides being baffling, requiring the player to enact implausible solutions to progress onto the later stages, it made use of a day/night mechanic whereby the game was less threatening, less challenging during the day and insanely difficult during the night. The music and sound effects were very shrill during the night, too. The bad graphics and design did not diminish the depth of the game’s urgency in any way. There is never any need for a game to hide its artificiality, I think. Games have not become any more amusing from improvements in digital rendering and graphics resolution. What mesmerizes us about the game is the manic swing of the algorithm. It is most thrilling to us when it succeeds in forcing us to recalibrate the way we play it. Children make a game of jumping rope when they initiate a tempo and a pace and then attempt to sustain the game after suddenly shifting that tempo. A boxer jumping rope in a gym, on the other hand, does so at a steady rhythm with the sole purpose of maintaining regular motion. There is no play in what the boxer is doing: he is working out. To make a game out of something there must be a challenge. This is a strange proposition since we seem equally to crave challenge and feel compelled evade it.

I have determined that there is a table of life challenges divided into different qualitative types and categories. The greater half is attributive to work. Work-related challenge is taxing and requires submission to some kind of spirit-numbing repetition. The object is to elude exhaustion; that’s all. The there is challenge related to play, which is just the opposite of work-challenge. It is non-repetitive and fun. It coaxes you to experiment with new methods and think in ways you wouldn’t normally. This is liberating. Your mind becomes engrossed in the mechanics of the game and not with itself.

I find myself craving the game most at work, or someplace where I can’t escape. Though the work is not hard I become very tired for some reason. So I little games for myself. This makes the time pass and breaks up the day a little. I work for the moment as a photo developer at on of the big chain drug stores. I expend more effort playing the work games than not, but for whatever reason, they make the job less tiresome. I have one where I rearrange the order of the photos card so that it makes people’s vacations and family get-togethers appear to have happen differently. I also sometimes try to identify exceedingly nondescript photos and insert them into other customers’ orders. It’s surprising how no one notices. On certain days, I make it a point to use a different voice or accent with each individual customer. Then I try to remember to use the same voice when they come back to pickup their order.

I often wonder, if I had a serious job that demanded more of my attention and gave me more responsibility, would that deter me from making games out of it? And if it did, would such a job even be worth having? I have sacrificed a lot to remain entry-level. I still live with my parents, I don’t own my own car, the people I work with don’t seem to respect me, and then there’s all of my squandered potential, whatever that might be. It is a waste of life, every day, but so long as nothing I do is of any consequence, I feel free to do whatever I like. I wear the uniform inside-out some days. I have security cameras trained on me every hour of the evening but no one watches them. I have supervisors, but these people are even less responsible than I am. They pass the night shift stoned or asleep in the office. I wonder what how many people go about their lives without any hope of meaningful accomplishment? A board game I happened to play often as a child was called Life. Friends liked it—there was nothing about it to solve, so I didn’t see any purpose in it. The point of the game, ostensibly, is to travel by means of chance across a board which narrates players’ fates and to accumulate as much money as possible. The player who finishes richest wins, but the game very subtly suggests that it is a hollow victory since all that this money grants you at the end of your “Life” is a nicer retirement home in which to die. Thus Milton-Bradley reminds us, there are no winners in the game of Life.

I do not know of any game that satisfies me with its ending. A few video games have good stories written into them that climax and resolution, but a game’s narrative can only ever be incidental. It is the conclusion to a movie that has transpired alongside the game. As for as the game itself, you either crave to play it again after it has ended or it exhausts your interest and you turn the machine off. In neither case do you leave the game content with what has been done. Should the end be sweetened by the event of winning, the player digests the euphoria in place of the game, until it is gone and he wants the game again. So winning once is never sufficient. It is only incrementally better than losing every time.

Choosing to Fish in Times of War

While nearly everyone who plays World of Warcraft chooses to campaign and soldier around, there is a strange little tribe of players who travel Azeroth with no other purpose than looking for good places to go fishing. Blizzard introduced the fishing activity as an easy—though incredibly tedious—way for players to accumulate gold. It was intended to be a secondary activity, a low-risk means of point grubbing that players could engage in between quests. There has since evolved in WoW a sub-culture of apparently very patient people who primarily fish and do very little else. They make pilgrimages to all the various fishing pools trying to collect a complete taxonomy of fish and sea animals. Blizzard stocks Azeroth with an ever-growing number of species, something like 200 in the latest version. Most illusive is the Giant Sea Turtle. Players can spend days trying to catch one.
A typical turtle expedition will require 3000 to 5000 casts over a pool where the turtle resides. At 2-3 casts a minute, this means that players will spend between 30 and 40 hours fishing before finally landing one. Once caught, the Sea Turtle can be used as a mount. It’s supposed to swim very fast.

Elsanglin.com is a guide site and community forum devoted to WoW fishing. It’s interesting to read about the fishing trips that players plan together. By far the biggest concern is evading the non-stop violence that prevails through every meadow and cove in the game. The fisher people are pacifists in an over-populated war game. They tell stories about finding secluded little beaches where they sat peacefully with a line in the water while a Devilsaur stomped around on the cliffs overhead. They’ll spend an hour circumventing a pitched battle to reach a remote fishing pool in a contested area.

Fishing people accumulate gold and skill faster than the traditional player. They are resented by many in the WoW community and are accused of gaming the system, and in a way, what there doing is kind of a reversion of Blizzard’s devised parameters and incentive structure. I think the pleasure that one derives from excessive WoW fishing is that it is unothodox and a departure from how the game was intended to be played. The fishermen play at the margins of the WoW arena. They exist outside of the mindless hack’n slash cycle that motivates continued involvement for most players. They traffic instead in discoveries and the prohibitively rare. Enthusiasts of the odd.